Designer's Notebook: Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?
Henry Morton Stanley finally found David Livingstone after trekking halfway
across a continent, the only thing he could think of to say was, "Dr.
Livingstone, I presume?"
Livingstone was the first European he'd seen in months -- the only other
one in central Africa. Who the heck did he think it was? But that was
the Victorian era, when people were not supposed to speak to one another
until properly introduced by a third party. In the absence of someone
to help out, Stanley had to break protocol and introduce himself.
The Victorian era is over, but the problem still remains, so I'm going
to take this first column to introduce myself. I'm a full-time game developer,
and I work for Electronic Arts. [Required disclaimer: To avoid any conflict
of interest, I won't be discussing EA products in this column. The opinions
in here are based on my years of experience as a game developer, and doesn't
necessarily represent the views of Electronic Arts. Now we have that out
of the way.] I've been developing games professionally for about
eight years, first as a software engineer and then as a strange hybrid
of designer and video producer. I used to help put on the Computer Game
Developers' Conference, and I founded and chaired the Computer Game Developers'
Association for two and a half years. I have a bachelor's degree in philosophy
from Stanford University, a 14-mile commute, and no car radio.
When the witty and handsome Jennifer Pahlka at Gamasutra asked me to write
a monthly column for her, I was flattered but dubious. "I can't reveal
the trade secrets of my job," I said. "Besides, my work doesn't change
enough to justify talking about it every month. On the other hand, I do
have a degree in philosophy, a 14-mile commute, and no car radio, so I
have about an hour alone every day to think about game design and development
and the industry and love and sex and money and life and death. Will that
"Sure," she said. "And if we don't like it, we'll just cut you off," she
So that's what this column is going to be: my personal ruminations about
this enterprise we're all engaged in. The philosophical foundations of
the industry, if you will. You may ask yourself how an industry that turns
out so much appalling drivel can have philosophical foundations, but they're
there... you just have to dig a bit. I happen to think that interactive
entertainment is exciting and important -- much
than the mainstream media give it credit for. Let me explain why.
I played my first computer game at a science museum in 1970. They charged
$2 an hour, which for me was two whole weeks' allowance. It was the best
investment I ever made. I paid my $2 and went down to a little room in
the basement of the museum. It was completely bare: fluorescent lighting,
concrete walls, no windows. Just me and an ASR-33 Teletype.
I'm going to digress for a moment to wax rhapsodic about the Teletype.
It's almost a shame that a new generation of computer users is growing
up never having used one. The Teletype was the
standard of electronic
written communication, predating E-mail. It printed in upper-case letters
on yellow roll paper at 110 baud, and there was a certain breathless excitement
about reading the text as it appeared. In newsrooms around the country,
Teletypes connected to the Associated Press clattered out the latest stories
the instant they were filed. The "hot line" between the White House and
the Kremlin had an ASR-33 at each end. The machine hummed quietly to itself
when it sat idle, but you knew that at any moment, it might suddenly start
up and print out the nuclear launch codes. When running, it rattled and
vibrated and smelled like machine oil and ozone.
I sat down at this thing, typed in XEQ-$LUNAR, and I pressed
the return key.
Half an hour later, I had landed on the moon.
And I had fought the Klingons in a massive space battle, with phasers
and photon torpedoes and shields.
And I'd built a dragster, and I'd raced it, and I'd redesigned it and
I'd raced it again. And I'd governed ancient Sumeria. I'd watched my population
thrive in good years and die in bad years, and I'd known the despair of
losing my harvest to the rats. I'd done that in half an hour! Sitting
there with my noisy, smelly machine, in a windowless room with concrete
walls and fluorescent lighting.
In a blinding moment of revelation, the power and the potential of the
interactive medium shone out. Listen: computer games can take you away
to a wonderful place and there let you do an amazing thing. Books, TV,
and movies can't do that. They can take you away to a wonderful place,
but they can't let you do an amazing thing. That's the power of interactivity.
That's what makes this medium unique, and that's what makes it important.
Because that power overcomes obstacles like upper-case letters on yellow
roll paper. That's why I'm doing this.
The first chance I got, I taught myself programming (FORTRAN, on the University
of Kentucky's IBM 360). The first program I wrote added 3 and 4 and printed
out the result. The second program I wrote was a computer game. I've been
building and playing them ever since.
My current working life is a bundle of contradictions. I work for a large
game publisher, and my sympathies lie with small developers. I work on
one of the best-selling games of all time, and I'm especially interested
in offbeat, experimental, even unsalable forms of interactive entertainment.
My job is to script, produce, and edit audio and video for my game, but
I don't believe in having a lot of video in computer games. The product
I work on is purchased almost exclusively by young men, and I would really
like to see this industry produce more games of interest to women and
In short, I'm either hopelessly schizophrenic or a Renaissance Man. Go
figure. But I like my job and the product I work on and the company I
work for and most of the people I work with, so I don't mind.
Maybe I'm being unrealistic about the power of the medium. Maybe you have
to be a ten-year-old to best appreciate it. Maybe I am
ten-year-old. But I believe that that capacity for wonder and excitement
is still there in all of us, and I can think of no better job than helping
to bring it alive.